Academic freedom in Israel and Palestine

Steven Rose, professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University, UK.

EMBO reports 10:1184 (2009)

Many readers of this journal will, like me, have Israeli colleagues whose research we respect, with whom we have collaborated, and among whom we have friends. Yet, these relationships have been overshadowed by the human rights abuses inflicted against the Palestinians, Israel’s flouting of UN resolutions and its indifference to international law. In 2002, this unease was given public expression with the call for European researchers to cease collaborating with Israeli academic institutions through the Framework Programme until Israel made serious moves towards a just and lasting peace. Hundreds of academics signed. Hanna Nasir, president of the leading West Bank university, Birzeit, sent a brief e-mail thanking the signatories: “We thought Europe had forgotten us.”

In the years that followed, and especially after Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the academic boycott has become a small part of a growing movement of civil society who are angry, even despairing, at the failure of international institutions and governments to rein in Israel.

Some defenders of Israel oppose any suggestion of a boycott. Others are uneasy because it would threaten academic freedom. For supporters of the boycott, academic freedom is indeed precious, but they are unwilling to accept that it takes automatic precedence over human rights. Like an earlier generation of academics who boycotted apartheid South Africa, they choose human rights. How such a boycott is applied is a matter of personal ethics: it might, for instance, mean not participating in collaborative research programmes, shunning conferences in Israel and not refereeing grant applications.

Three arguments underlie the boycott: first, to support our Palestinian colleagues, whose academic freedom is infringed daily and who have called for a boycott; second, the complicity of many Israeli academics and institutions in Israel’s breaches of international conventions on human rights, and the refusal by Israeli academic institutions to recognize that the academic freedom of their Palestinian colleagues is curtailed; and third, a boycott and divestment campaign will help to put pressure on the Israeli government to negotiate a just peace.

Here are a few examples of the everyday denial of our Palestinian colleagues” freedom to research, travel and teach. An attempt to establish a collaborative research project with a colleague from Birzeit foundered when we were told that Israel would not permit the use of radioactive tracers. A physiology lecturer at Birzeit is routinely stopped at a military checkpoint and prevented from giving his lectures; on one occasion, a soldier decided that as an “assistant professor” he wasn’t qualified to lecture–only “full professors” could cross. Sometimes only men over the age of 45 or female students are allowed to pass checkpoints. Such harassments with their bizarre and humiliating justifications render Palestinian academic life precarious. The fact that some scientists manage to keep strong biomedical research profiles beggars belief.

In Gaza, the situation is far worse. The Islamic University, Gaza’s leading academic institution, was destroyed during Israel’s incursion. Education at all levels has virtually collapsed under the blockade. Bringing in books and writing materials is prohibited, and Gazan students are prevented from travelling to the West Bank and from taking up studentships abroad.

Nor is the situation easy for Palestinians in Israel itself. Recently, the Carmel Centre at Haifa University cancelled an accountancy course because, its spokesman said, a majority of students were Arab (Anon, 2009).

One might expect Israeli academia to protest against the abrogation of the academic freedoms of their Palestinian colleagues. Yet, with a few heroic exceptions, the response is silence and passive or active complicity (Rose & Rose, 2008). In the aftermath of the Gaza invasion, evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka of Tel-Aviv University and her colleagues asked some 9,000 Israeli academics for signatures on a statement defending Palestinian academic freedom; only 400 or so responded (Fisch et al, 2009). The same is true of Israel’s supporters abroad; not one of the 450 presidents of American colleges, who denounced the boycott call, protested against the destruction of the Islamic University in Gaza (Gordon & Halper, 2008). As the late Tanya Reinhart, professor of linguistics at Tel-Aviv University, wrote: “Never in its history did the Senate of any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities, let alone protest over the devastation sowed there…. If in extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system” (Reinhart, 2003).

The ultimate test of a boycott must be the role it has in changing the policies of those boycotted. The vociferousness of the opponents of the boycott, their ad hominem accusations against its signatories, and the mobilisation of the Israel lobby in the USA to challenge the legality of what is above all an individual moral decision, makes it clear that it has touched a sensitive nerve. For Israel, its academy is second only to the military in national prestige. Being part of the European Research Area symbolizes Israel’s aspirations to be regarded more as a part of Europe than of the Middle East. But more than that, Israel’s science is a major economic force. Where governments seem unwilling to help move Israel into achieving a just peace with the Palestinians whose land it occupies, actions by individuals as part of civil society might be the only way forward.

Anon (2009) The Carmel Academic Center in Haifa closes academic track as too many Palestinian students registered. The Alternative Information Center May 27

Fisch M, Falk R, Jablonka E, Gissis S (2009) Academic freedom for whom?

Gordon N, Halper J (2008) Where’s the academic outrage over the bombing
of a university in Gaza? Counterpunch Dec 31

Reinhart T (2003) Academic boycott: in support of Paris VI. ZNet Apr 4

Rose H, Rose S (2008) Israel, Europe and the academic boycott. Race Cl

This article represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily
those of EMBO or EMBO reports.


Counter-response by Steven Rose:

EMBO reports 11:151-152 (2010)

Neither Shai Berlin nor Ari Elson attempt to refute the facts in my Opinion column, nor show any concern for the routinely abrogated academic freedom of their colleagues in the Palestinian universities in Gaza or the West Bank. Instead, they argue that issues of human rights and politics should not intrude within the walls of academia. Yet, politics intrude inevitably into their letters. Berlin suggests that the boycott campaign is an anti-Israel conspiracy–even though the boycott would apply to Israeli academic institutions but not to Israeli citizens working elsewhere. Nor, despite Berlin’s claim, is the boycott call timed to relate to Israel’s Gaza massacres or the Goldstone report; rather, it is part of a growing global movement, from civil society, churches and academia, for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Elson justifies roadblocks as a measure to prevent suicide bombing of civilians, acts of terror that I join him in condemning. But he implies that these roadblocks are within Israel itself, that is, behind the 1967 borders. In fact, hundreds of such blockades straddle roads within the West Bank, closing Palestinian cities, preventing farmers reaching their lands, the sick from health care, and staff and students access to their schools and universities. The West Bank is also criss-crossed with “Jews only” settler roads on which Palestinians may not travel. The illegal Jewish settlers–400,000 of them–drain the aquifers for their swimming pools and leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians without access to running water, as documented by Amnesty International. It may take two to tango, as Berlin states, but the tango involves two evenly matched partners. Israelis should not be surprised to discover that the asymmetry of illegal military occupation, expropriation and poverty breeds resistance.

Berlin writes from Tel Aviv University (TAU), which has participated in 55 joint technological projects with the Israeli army over recent years, mainly in electro-optics (Keller, 2009). TAU’s campus occupies the site of a demolished Palestinian village, Sheikh Muwanis, whose inhabitants were forcibly evicted in 1948. His staff club, the Green House, was once that of a Palestinian village elder. Berlin claims, in flat contradiction to the United Nations and international opinion, that since 1948, Palestine as a country “does not exist”. Is this denial a neutral scientific claim, or an endorsement of a political agenda?

Berlin points to the presence of “Arab Israeli” students in Israeli universities. Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, but only 1% of Israeli academic staff is Palestinian. Berlin fails to mention the discriminatory legislation that gives special benefits and credits to students from the Israeli Defence Force, which excludes Palestinian citizens of Israel. He says nothing of the many well-documented examples of racist harassment by professors and Jewish students of Palestinian students on the campuses of Haifa and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or of Haifa University’s endorsement of a conference–from which Palestinian Israelis were exclude –focusing on the “demographic problem” of the high birth rate of Palestinian Israelis and the problems this would present for the Jewish State. Think about how this would sound if a conference in New York on the demographic problem of the Jews excluded Jews.

Israeli universities and research institutions are thus not independent of the Israeli State and its political agendas and acts. Rather, they, and many of the academics within them, are active creators and endorsers. As I emphasised in my Opinion column, a boycott is a tactic, not an end in itself. It is an effort to persuade those boycotted to change their policies. Berlin claims that it is ineffective. If so, and the policies do not change, so much the worse not just for Palestinians, but for Israel itself and the wider world outside the Middle East.


Keller U (2009) Socioeconomic Bulletin No.23: Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories. The Alternative Information Centre

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